Japan 3 – The Tokyo Metro

I have figured out the undergrounds in London, Paris and New York, but it took me a while.

And I expected Tokyo to be more complex. About 7 million people use this network every day. 7. Million. People.

So it’s fucking huge. Nine lines and 179 stations. But the information systems they apply make it really quick, intuitive and simple to understand. Which is some achievement.

When I was in UCD studying librarianship many years ago we had a brilliant module on information. It was probably called The Structuring of Information Systems or something like that. And I think that every second and third level student should study this module. Because it taught me about how to structure and cluster information. How to learn. How to assimilate information in manageable chunks, how to manipulate it and how to present it in an accessible way to others. It was the most useful course I ever did and I used it in my job for 20 years. And I’m still using it today.

Basically the way to make information useful is to cluster or chunk it. Otherwise there’s just too much to take in and it becomes meaningless and undecipherable. A simple example of this is your mobile phone number. If somebody asks you your number you say 0872398491, right? Wrong. What you say is: 087 239 84 91. Intuitively, to remember this 10 digit piece of information, you cluster it into 3 and 2 piece chunks. I think 3 is the perfect   number for the maximum amount of information.

And the person who designed the signage for the Tokyo Metro system understands this. The information provision is shit hot (that’s a librarian technical term). First of all they allocate two unique signifiers to each station. Two is a good number. And the signifiers are letters and numbers. Simple. M12, what could be easier?

And there’s a third signifier too and it’s a colour, which makes it really easy for the eye to pick up in signs as you weave your way through the interminable stations such as Shinjuku and Shibuya,  trying to find your platform. So the unique signifier for the Kanda station is yellow, G, 13. Yellow is the Ginza line, G is the Ginza line, and Kanda is the 13th station along that line.

The numbers give an added bonus. If you’re in London & you know your stop is on the Piccadilly Line, you still need to know the ultimate destination to figure out which train to board on which platform. But with this system, the number tells you that. The colour makes it easy to follow the direction in the station to the platform; the letter make it easy to find the line you need, and once you know the number you know where to get off. Brilliant.

Then, when you’re on the train there’s another great innovation. What do you need to know when you’re on the train? Where to stop,  what’s the next station, the direction, how many minutes to the next station and to your station, which door to use, and where to go when you exit. And the on-board sign tells you all that. Simply and so that you can take in a huge amount of information. Because it’s clustered. It even gives a cross-dimensional view of the station before you stop. This lets you know where to go after you leave the train.

I was blown away. And we never got lost. That is, until we got into Shinjuku or Shibuya stations. But that’s another story.


Novelist, short story writer, essayist, sports writer. Crime novel: Whatever it Takes due out 31 July 2020. The First Sunday in September, debut novel, published in 2018. Mercier Press, Stinging Fly, Irish Examiner, Irish Times, The42.ie, Holly Bough, Honest Ulsterman, Quarryman, Silver Apples.

One comment

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s